Tag Archives: sheana davis

I want to go on a Balloon ride… in Sonoma, Sonoma, Sonoma!

I always forget to write about judging the Sonoma Harvest Fair dairy competition because the awards are secret for a while afterwards. In fact, I’m never exactly sure when they are made public because it’s some time after the judging but before the awards dinner.

But I guess it doesn’t really matter. I’m still here. You’re still here. The cheeses are still here. Let’s talk about it now!


The Sonoma Harvest Fair is mostly a wine competition but Sheana Davis* helped bring I dairy back in 2010. It’s open only to cheese, butter, and yogurt made in Sonoma County and while that certainly limits the amount of entries, Sonoma County’s dairy history is over 150 years old so it shouldn’t be absent from this kind of celebration of local food.

This year the judges were me, Sheana, and Colette Hatch, a cheese consultant also known as “Madame de Fromage”** We use the 4-H method of judging where we taste the cheese, give it a preliminary grade (gold, silver, bronze, or no award), have a little discussion, then give a final grade. If everyone votes for gold then it is awarded a “double gold” and entered into the Best of Show category.

The winner was the Valley Ford Cheese Company’s 14 Month Montasio-style Estero Gold. Valley Ford just recently started making cheese but they are a fifth generation dairy operation with a closed heard of 400 Jersey cows humanely raised on 640 acres of land. I had never tried any of Karen Moreda’s cheeses aged this long and I was a little shocked at the strength and depth of flavor. This cheese was assertively fruity, sharp, earthy, big and bitey. Truly an awesome cheese. Her Fontina-style Highway One (below) also got a double gold.
Highway One

My vote for Best of Show (though it was a really difficult decision because they were such different style of cheese) was the Bleating Heart Dairy “Fat Bottom Girl”. Named for the accidental way that her first batch aged, this is simply a great, local version of a classic Basque sheep cheese: milky sweet, caramel-y, grassy, and just incredibly satisfying. Seana Doughty also won double gold for her “Shepherdista”. She just makes great sheep cheese.
Fat Bottom Girl

Another notable double gold winner was the butter from McClelland Dairy. I love their butter. Got some in the fridge right now in fact.

The other double golders were the Achadinha Capricious, the Two Rock Valley Cheese, and the Spring Hill butter. Yum.
All the double golds (from l-r Spring Hill Butter, McClelland Dairy Butter, Valley Ford Highway One, Bleating Heart Sheperdista, Blkeating Heart Fat Bottom Girl, Achadinha Capricious, Two Rock Valley Cheese, Valley Ford Estero Gold

* Sheana’s store, The Epicurean Connection, is opening in a new location on my birthday.*** Check it out if you are in Sonoma
**She really is French so this is not pretentious.
***My birthday, at different times has also been Ig Vella Day and Sheana Davis Day
****The title of this entry is taken from a great song by Feelings on a Grid called “In Sonoma”. It has nothing to do with the rest of the entry.

Ignazio Vella 1928-2011

I think almost anyone who has been in the cheese world for a period of time has their “meeting Ig” story. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s not even just a California thing. Cheese folks came from all over the country to talk to him. He was that important.

He really was. Very few people (at least in this state) had been in the cheese making business as long as he and his family had. Until he could no longer do it, he had his hands in the vat every day. He was a walking history of American cheesemaking and we are all diminished by his passing. He was a cheese elder and that link to our shared oral history is gone forever.

dry jack aging
(Wheels of Vella Dry Jack in their Sonoma aging room)

But it’s not like he was just an old-timer who you’d talk to get some trivial or nostalgic stories. He loved helping new cheese folks. True, he also loved spotting phonies and self-promoters and bursting the bubbles of aspiring cheesemakers who had more fantasy than reality in their plans, but I think most hard-working people are like that. He was hands-on in his own plant but also with the folks at Rogue Creamery who had bought his family’s old blue cheese factory. That Rogue makes some of the finest blue cheese in the country (and with the Rogue River Blue, I’d say the world) is a tribute to David and Cary and all the folks who work there, but also to Ig who traveled up there regularly them turn their product from the mediocre, unmemorable cheese it was when they bought the place, to the amazing cheese it is now.

Traditionally, Vella cheese came from the milk of one main local dairy where the quality and care could be assured. Even writing that sounds like boilerplate now in our current cheese-trendy times, but this was a carry-over from the old dairy days for the Vellas and you knew it was true. Heck, he would bring his dairyman to the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference that he founded with Sheana Davis and Professor Moshe Rosenberg.

Which is the other way he helped cheesemakers. Ig’s legacy lives on in Vella Cheese and Rogue Creamery of course (and through other cheesemakers, who can choose to credit Ig themselves). However, it also lives on in the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference. It’s where I knew him from best since I helped wrangle a number of panelists and speakers for that conference over the years. On the schedule there was always “Ig Time”. From, say, 8:00-9:00 AM he would have the floor to discuss – loosely – whatever the theme of the conference was and what it meant to him. These were always some of the best times for me.

You never really knew what to expect but it would be opinionated, historically-based, and make you think about the big picture cheese issues. Very few people have that ability to make people think big, especially in a trade-based conference. It always set the tone – that lives on today even without Ig’s active participation in the last couple of years – for honest, open discussion, and mutual aid. It’s a far cry from other trade events we’ve all attended filled with panelists doing infomercials for themselves and the “educational programming” really being a sparsely attended front for deal-making, instead of intending to be conversation set up to uplift the whole group.

And yes, I do remember the first time I met Ig. Surprisingly, it wasn’t through Sheana Davis who is my good friend, who continues to run the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, and who Ig mentored for a decade or two.
ig and sheana
(Sheana and Ig at the dedication of the “Ig Bridge”)

No, it was through Andrea London a well-respected cheese person who – at that moment – happened to be my sales rep for a now-defunct company. I had only been working in cheese for a couple of years but she couldn’t believe I hadn’t met Ig. She arranged a tour for us and after meeting the other cheesemakers (who’ve each been there about 30 years themselves by now) and looking at all the aging cheese, we went out to lunch. I made him laugh when I mocked Domestic Parms for lacking in flavor and how much I appreciated the Dry Jack as an alternative. I’m sure in retrospect I did it in a clumsy and ahistorical way but he laughed and I knew the rest of the meal would be ok. I felt even luckier six months later when he almost made someone cry who dared to ask him about the “terroir” of the region.

I feel luckiest now though, thinking about all the times I got to hear Ig talk cheese history. I don’t know anyone who has done more for the world of small-production, hand-made, sustainable cheese. This “artisan cheese” resurgence that we are in right now is the product of a lot of people, but Ig was always an example of how to do it right. His practices and influences are felt all over the state and the country.

Many of the cheeses on the cover of my book were grabbed out of convenience or because of their size and shape. However, as I was leaving our walk-in that day, I made sure I brought a wheel of Dry Jack. There is a reason I chose to hold it in that picture. It was really my tiny way of honoring his work.

Goodbye Ig. You will be missed.

*Sonoma News has a great biographical article on Ig that covers more than just his cheesemaking. Well worth a read.

Sonoma Harvest Fair

In the craziness of last year, I just realized that I never wrote about judging for the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Despite the fact that Sonoma County is a dairy hub, thanks to Sheana Davis this was the first year in a long time that they included a cheese category in their yearly, local awards.

They have an interesting way of judging at the Sonoma Harvest Fair. Since I put off writing this entry for 4 months, I now can’t remember what is was called… Swedish judging? Scandinavian judging? It’s called Danish Judging and it’s the staple of 4-H contests. Thanks Sarah Shevett!* Anyways, the judges sample the cheese — then before talking to each other — provisionally rank the cheese gold, silver, Bronze or no award. If there is disagreement, you take a couple of minutes to re-taste and try to convince the other judges to raise or lower their scores. Finally, judges give their final rank. With three judges, two votes out of three carried the award. In the case where all three judges award gold, the cheese gets awarded ”Double Gold”. From there we chose the best of show.

Here we are:

I was skeptical of this method because I had never used it before. At most cheese contests, a point system for different attributes is used, judges are not encouraged to lobby each other, and the total points carry the award. First, second, and third are usually limited to three cheeses (except in the case of ties).

By the end though, I kind of liked this system. Generally we agreed right off the bat and only once did we have a gold/silver/bronze split. Of course, we did have over 50 years of professional cheese experience among the three judges.

Amusingly enough, the Best in Show is a cheese that is no longer available. It is the Petaluma Creamery Dry Goat Jack with Peppercorns

dry goat jack with pppercorns

We actually carried this cheese for a couple of years, but I guess they lost their goat milk supply and this, including the winner, was cheese made awhile back and aged a long time.

I screwed up my picture of one of the runners up, Cameo, a soft-ripened goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm, but I’ve written about it previously. I will just substitute the video by Cameo instead because I really can’t listen to this song enough:

The other runner up was from the Valley Ford Cheese Company for their Highway One.
Highway 1

Highway One is a very nice Fontina-style cheese from a farmstead family dairy that is only getting better and better.

Of course, I am really excited for my next judging gig. Yep, I am judging Mac and Cheese for SF Food Wars in a couple of weeks. This event sold out in about thirty seconds. I am not exaggerating.

*Anybody know? Help me out here, my googling didn’t yield any results.

One last Cheese-a-Topia post

Here are a few on my favorite cheese folks with Bay Area roots:

group o' cheese folks
Sheana, Emiliano, Brad, Ocatvio, and me. What an awesome picture!

Cheese-a-Topia favorites (part 3)

Ok, Last of the non-cheeses…Another local winner was Jana McClelland who took 3rd for her salted butter. This is actually the butter I have in my fridge right now. The McClellands are a long-time North Bay dairy family and it’s exciting to seem them producing products under their own name. And the butter is awesome!

I have mentioned Sheana Davis’s Delice de la Vallee here many times, but this was the first time It was eligible to be in the ACS competition and, to no one’s surprise, it won its category (Fresh unripened mixed milk). Congrats Sheana!

I put these two winners together because I have a picture of them together. Here are Sheana Davis and Jana McClelland at the Festival of Cheese